Weeks after my son’s epic meltdown in REI, I heard the words I should’ve said. I’ve been trying to use them more ever since.
When I look back on the meltdown — by far the worst, most public one he’s had — it seems like a movie.
He was about 10 and in a boot cast after badly spraining his ankle. We had to switch him to super-sturdy hiking boots so he could stop using the cast. We’d tried once before to buy them at REI, but something in the store set him off.
While many autistic people like my son experience sensory overloads in places like Target, my son is able to handle that store and even enjoy it, bright lights and all. But REI sets him off. I still don’t know why.
That day, with the help of his service dog, he’d made it through challenge of trying on boots and finding ones that fit. We’d navigated the gauntlet of busy shoppers, curious dog lovers and racks of stuff.
One thing stood between us and the freedom and fresh air outside: a long line.
He started getting agitated. I kept repeating, “PT Amy says we need to get these boots so we can take off your cast. Just a few more minutes.”
I honestly don’t know how long we were in line. It seemed like half an hour. Half a day, even. But my memory is skewed by the fervor of his meltdown.
Finally, he blew. Yelled. Kicked. Laid down on the floor. Threw his beads.
The way I remember it, the crowd in line collectively took 10 steps away from us and gasped. In my mind, there were about 50 people in line and hundreds of shoppers, who all froze at once on cue.
The guy in front of me with a complicated return kept staring at his phone, unwilling to give up his place in line.
I kept thinking, “Why don’t they help me? Can’t they see what’s happening? A boy in a cast. A service dog. It’s pretty obvious what’s happening here, people!” I felt so alone. And I felt we had to get those boots right then.
One mom did help. She retrieved the beads then went back to her kids. She gripped them tight, her expression clenched in fear and pity.
Finally, they brought in another salesperson. We bought the (expletive deleted) boots. The meltdown was over.
A few weeks later, I described the incident and repeated my internal monologue to my therapist.
“You could have said, ‘I need help,’” she gently suggested.
Never has something so obvious but so elusive been revealed to me.
It honestly never occurred to me that I could ask for help for myself. I’d been so used to helping my son and being his advocate, his explainer and soother in chief, it just never occurred to me to say, “I need help.”
I learned a lot since that day, not the least of which is to respect my son’s sensory needs, to get help for myself because that means helping my son, and to stay out of REI.
My first inclination is still to soldier on my own, but I’ve learned to stop, breathe and ask for help.
Three simple words that can be so hard to say for those of us special needs parents caught in our own flight-or-fight moments.
Three simple words.
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